Judaism offers a variety of views regarding the love of God and love among human beings. Love is a central value in Jewish ethics and Jewish theology.
The basic Hebrew word for "love," ahavah (אהבה), like the English word "love," is used to describe intimate or romantic feelings or relationships, such as the love between parent and child in Genesis 22:2; 25: 28; 37:3; the love between close friends in I Samuel 18:2, 20:17; or the love between a young man and young woman in Song of Songs.
Another word often used for love, chesed (חסד), is often translated as "loving-kindness" or "steadfast love." It includes aspects of affection and compassion. Daniel Elazar has suggested that "chesed" cannot easily be translated into English, but that it means something like "loving covenant obligation," a kind of love that goes beyond a concern with compliance with following laws or contracts.
Love among human beings
One of the core commandments of Judaism is "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18), sometimes called the Great Commandment. This commandment stands at the center of the central book in the Torah. The Talmudic sages Hillel and Rabbi Akiva indicated that this is the central commandment of the Torah.
This commandment of love, with the preceding sentence, "Thou shalt not avenge nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people," may originally have referred, and has by some scholars (Stade, "Gesch. des Volkes Israel," i. 510a) been exclusively referred, to the Israelitish neighbor; but in verse 34 of the same chapter it is extended to "the stranger that dwelleth with you . . . and thou shalt love him as thyself." In Job xxxi. 13-15 it is declared unjust to wrong the servant in his cause: "Did not he that made me in the womb make him? and did not one fashion us in the womb?"
Romantic love is included in the command to love one's neighbor, but romantic love per se is not a central topic in classical Jewish literature. Some medieval rabbinic authorities such as Judah Halevi wrote romantic poetry in Arabic, though some say that Halevi regretted his romantic poetry, which he wrote in his younger years.
Classical rabbinic literature
Commenting upon the command to love the neighbor (Lev. l.c.) is a discussion recorded (Sifra, Ḳedoshim, iv.; compare Gen. R. xxiv. 5) between Rabbi Akiva, who declared this verse in Leviticus to contain the great principle of the Law ("Kelal gadol ba-Torah"), and Ben Azzai, who pointed to Gen. v. 1 ("This is the book of the generations of Adam; in the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him"), as the verse expressing the leading principle of the Law, obviously because the first verse gives to the term "neighbor" its unmistakable meaning as including all men as being sons of Adam, made in the image of God. Tanḥuma, in Genesis Rabbah l.c., explains it thus: "If thou despisest any man, thou despisest God who made man in His image."
Hillel also took the Biblical command in this universal spirit when he responded to the heathen who requested him to tell the Law while standing before him on one foot: "What is hateful to thee, thou shalt not do unto thy neighbor. This is the whole of the Law, the rest is only commentary" (Shab. 31a). The negative form was the accepted Targum interpretation of Lev. xix. 18, known alike to the author of Tobit iv. 15 and to Philo, in the fragment preserved by Eusebius, "Preparatio Evangelica," viii. 7 (Bernays' "Gesammelte Abhandlungen," 1885, i. 274 et seq.); to the Didache, i. 1; Didascalia or Apostolic Constitutions, i. 1, iii. 15; Clementine Homilies, ii. 6; and other ancient patristic writings (Resch, "Agrapha," pp. 95, 135, 272). That this so-called golden rule, given also in James ii. 8, was recognized by the Jews in the time of Jesus, may be learned from Mark xii. 28-34; Luke x. 25-28; Matt. vii. 12, xix. 19, xxii. 34-40; Rom. xiii. 9; and Gal. v. 14, where the Pharisaic scribe asks Jesus in the same words that were used by Rabbi Akiva, "What is the great commandment of the Law?" and the answer given by Jesus declares the first and great commandment to be the love of God, and the second the love of "thy neighbor as thyself." To include all men, Hillel used the term "beriot" (creatures [compare κτίσις]; Mark xvi. 15; Rom. viii. 19) when inculcating the teaching of love: "Love the fellow-creatures" (Abot i. 12). Hatred of fellow-creatures ("sinat ha-beriyot") is similarly declared by R. Joshua b. Hananiah to be one of the threethings that drive man out of the world (Abot ii. 11; compare I John iii. 15).
The Talmud insists, with reference to Lev. xix. 18, that even the criminal at the time of execution should be treated with tender love (Sanh. 45a). As Schechter in "J. Q. R." x. 11, shows, the expression "Ye have heard . . ." is an inexact translation of the rabbinical formula , which is only a formal logical interrogation introducing the opposite view as the only correct one: "Ye might deduce from this verse that thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy, but I say to you the only correct interpretation is, Love all men, even thine enemies."
In Tanna debe Eliyahu R. xv. it is said: "Blessed be the Lord who is impartial toward all. He says: 'Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbor. Thy neighbor is like thy brother, and thy brother is like thy neighbor.'" Likewise in xxviii.: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God"; that is, thou shalt make the name of God beloved to the creatures by a righteous conduct toward Gentiles as well as Jews (compare Sifre, Deut. 32).
Ḥayyim Vital, the kabbalist, in his "Sha'are Ḳedushah," i. 5 teaches that the law of love of the neighbor includes the non-Israelite as well as the Israelite. A similar view was taught by Aaron b. Abraham ibn Ḥayyim of the sixteenth century, in his commentary to Sifre and by Moses Ḥagis of the eighteenth century, in his work on the 613 commandments, while commenting on Deut. xxiii. 7.
Early Reform Judaism
The synod at Leipsic in 1869, and the German-Israelitish Union of Congregations in 1885, stood on old historical ground when declaring that "'Love thy neighbor as thyself' is a command of all-embracing love, and is a fundamental principle of the Jewish religion."
The 20th-century rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler is frequently quoted as defining love from the Jewish point-of-view as "giving without expecting to take" (from his Michtav me-Eliyahu, vol. I).
The 20th-century Jewish theologian Will Herberg argued that "justice" is at the heart of the Jewish notion of love, and the foundation for Jewish law:
The ultimate criterion of justice, as of everything else in human life, is the divine imperative — the law of love .... Justice is the institutionalization of love in society .... This law of love requires that every man be treated as a Thou, a person, an end in himself, never merely as a thing or a means to another's end. When this demand is translated into laws and institutions under the conditions of human life in history, justice arises.
Love between God and human beings
Deuteronomy 6: 4-5 commands: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might."
Classical rabbinic literature
The commandment to love God in Deut. 6 is taken by the Mishnah (a central text of the Jewish oral law) to refer to good deeds, willingness to sacrifice one's life rather than commit certain serious transgressions, willingness to sacrifice all one's possessions and being grateful to the Lord despite adversity (tractate Berachoth 9:5, tractate Sanhedrin 74a). Rabbinic literature differs how this love can be developed.
The love of God means the surrounding of life with His commandments (Men. 43b) and is conditioned by the love of the Torah (R. H. 4a). Israel is said to love Him, giving their very lives for the observance of His commandments (Mek., Yitro, 6, to Ex. xx. 6). Indeed, love of God is voluntary surrender of life and all one has for God's honor (Sifre, Deut. 32; Ber. 54a). It is unselfish service of God (Abot i. 3; 'Ab Zarah 19a). There are chastisements of love for the righteous to test their piety (Ber. 5a; comp. Rom. v. 3). It is this unequaled love, braving suffering and martyrdom, which established the unique relation between God and Israel, so that "none of the nations can quench this love" (Cant. R. viii. 7). This unique love is echoed also in the liturgy (see Ahabah Rabbah). To be a true "lover of God," however, means "to receive offense, and resent not; to hear words of contumely, and answer not; to act merely from love, and rejoice even in trials as tests of pure love" (Shab. 88b; Soṭah 31a; comp. Rom. viii. 28).
Bahya Ibn Pakuda
Love of God is accentuated as the highest incentive of action by Baḥya ibn Paḳuda, in "Ḥobot ha-Lebabot" (see Jew. Encyc. ii. 454).
Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, devotes the whole tenth chapter of Hilkot Teshubah, with reference to Abot i. 3, to love of God as the motive which gives all human action its true ethical and religious value. Maimonides wrote that it should only be out of love for God, rather than fear of punishment or hope for reward, that Jews should obey the law: "When man loves God with a love that is fitting he automatically carries out all the precepts of love". Maimonides thinks that love of God can be developed by contemplating Divine deeds or witnessing the marvels of nature (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesoday HaTorah, Chapter 2).
Naḥmanides in his commentary to Deut. vi. 4, with reference to Sifre, l.c., declares that love of God involves the study and observance of the Law without regard to gain or expectation of reward; so also Baḥya ben Asher, in his "Kad ha-Ḳemaḥ," under "Ahabah."
Eleazar of Worms
R. Eleazar of Worms, in his ethical work "Roḳeaḥ," begins with the chapter on love, referring to Sifre, Deut. 32, 41, 48; Ber. 54a; Yoma 86a; Ned. 62a; Soṭah 31a; Tanna debe Eliyahu xxvi.; Midr. Teh. to Ps. xiii. 2 ("I love Thee; that is, 'I love Thy creatures'"); and Midr. Tadshe xii., and stating that he who truly loves God subordinates all other desires and cares to the one great object of life—the fulfilment of God's will in joy.
Still more extensively does Elijah de Vidas, in his ethical work "Reshit Ḥokmah" (part 2), dwell on love of God as the highest aim and motive of life. He also quotes the Zohar (i. 11b; ii. 114, 116a; iii. 68a, 264b, 267a; and other passages), where it is frequently stated that pure love is suppression of all care for self, and through such love true union of the soul with God is effected. This union is said by the Kabbalists to take place in the celestial "palace of love" (Zohar i. 44b, ii. 97a).
Still greater importance was attached to love when it was rendered a cosmic principle in the philosophical systems of Ḥasdai Crescas and, through him, of Spinoza. Instead of rendering the creative intellect the essence of the Deity, as did Maimonides and all the Aristotelians, Crescas, like Philo, makes love the essential quality of God. Love is divine bliss, and hence love of God is the source of eternal bliss for mortal man
Judah Leon Abravanel
But, more than Crescas, it was probably Judah Leon Abravanel from whom Spinoza borrowed the idea of "intellectual love" as a cosmic principle, and who, following the Platonic and pantheistic tendency of the period of the Italian Renaissance, made (in his "Dialoghi di Amore") the "amore intellectivo" and "amore mentale" or "rationale" the essence of God and the central force and end of the world. "Love links all things together in the cosmos, but while love in the natural world is sensual and selfish, divine love is unselfish and uplifting. God's love created the world and brings about the perfection of all things, especially of man, who, when good, is God-loving as well as God-beloved, and whose love of God leads him to eternal bliss, which is identical with divine love." This intellectual love is identical with the Biblical "to him [God] shalt thou cleave" (Deut. x. 20, xi. 22, xiii. 5; Sifre, Deut. 49; Soṭah 14a) and gives rise to the "imitatio Dei." It is highest perfection and supreme joy Abravanel's view of love as the principle of the world appears to have exerted some influence also upon Schiller in his "Philosophische Briefe" (1838, x. 289)
This section may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia's quality standards. Please improve this section if you can. The talk page may contain suggestions. (December 2010)
The 20th-century Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig described divine love as cleansing:
It is not God that need cleanse it [the soul of the beloved, i.e. Israel] of its sin. Rather it cleanses itself in the presence of his love. It is certain of God's love in the very moment that shame withdraws from it and it surrenders itself in free, present admission — as certain as if God had spoken into its ear that "I forgive" which is longed for earlier when it confessed to him its sins of the past. It no longer needs this formal absolution. It is freed of its burden at the very moment of daring to assume all of it on its shoulders. So too the beloved no longer needs the acknowledgment of the lover which she longed for before she admitted her love. At the very moment when she herself dares to admit it, she is as certain of his love as if he were whispering his acknowledgment into her ear.
Rosenzweig described the Hebrew Bible as a "grammar of love" in which God can communicate "I love you" only by demanding "You must love me," and Israel can communicate "I love you" only by confessing "I have sinned." Therefore, this confession does not lead God to offer an unnecessary absolution; it merely expresses Israel's love for God. "What then is God's answer to this 'I am thine' by which the beloved soul acknowledges him" if it is not "absolution?" Rosenzweig's answer is: revelation: "He cannot make himself known to the soul before the soul has acknowledged him. But now he must do so. For this it is by which revelation first reaches completion. In its groundless presentness, revelation must now permanently touch the ground." Revelation, epitomized by Sinai, is God's response to Israel's love. Contrary to Paul, who argued that "through the law comes knowledge of sin", Rosenzweig argues that it is because of and after a confession of sin that God reveals to Israel knowledge of the law.
Rosenzweig believs that for the rabbis, Song of Songs provides a paradigm for understanding the love between God and Israel, a love that "is strong as death". God's love is as strong as death because it is love for the People Israel, and it is as a collective that Israel returns God's love. Thus, although one may die, God and Israel, and the love between them, lives on. In other words, Song of Songs is "the focal book of revelation" where the "grammar of love" is most clearly expressed. But this love that is as strong as death ultimately transcends itself, as it takes the form of God's law — for it is the law that binds Israel as a people, and through observance of the law that each Jew relives the moment of revelation at Mt. Sinai. Ultimately, Song of Songs points back to Leviticus's command to love one's neighbor as oneself and to the rest of the Torah.
Through the revelation of God's commandments, in Rosenzweig's view, the love portrayed in Song of Songs becomes the love commanded in Leviticus. Just as love for the Children of Israel is one of the ways that God is present in the world, the necessary response by the Jews — the way to love God in return — is to extend their own love out towards their fellow human beings.